The Past is Never Dead
Wrestling History Consists Mostly of Lies and Lore. Enter Al Getz.
“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
Every week I spend hours staring at a small box on my computer, a modern technological marvel I use almost exclusively to live in the past. The videos are of dubious quality and legality, wavy VHS lines competing for space on the top and bottom of the screen with the wrestling matches of my youth.
There’s an ache that comes with this, a longing for days that can never return. Watching Dusty Rhodes battle Ole Andersonor Jim Duggan whallop Ted DiBiase immediately transports me to a childhood filled with wonder. Suddenly I’m listening to my mom’s Waylon Jennings records or riding with my step dad in his old white Chevy Nova, the one I learned to drive on years later despite a lack of power steering and a dent in the door the old man never did get fixed. We’d pile in the old beater on an impromptu road trip to see the Braves, just a couple of bucks enough to get us into Fulton County Stadium to see a team that was traditionally God awful, despite the best efforts of Dusty-look-alike Bob Horner and the great Dale Murphy.
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Some people feel this longing so powerfully that they lash out against the modern world, trapped in an era that lives only in our memories. There’s danger in that, of course, but it’s an understandable inclination. The wrestling of our youth is the version of the sport that holds the remote control to our hearts.
Wrestling is a sport with strong ties to the past. Today’s wrestlers reference it regularly, both explicitly in interviews and television promos and in the construction of their art, with call-back spots and copycat sequences en vogue at the moment. There are cottage industries, both inside the WWE machine and beyond, devoted to wallowing in nostalgia. But when you venture back even a few years past the WWF’s national expansion in the early 80’s, history becomes as murky as the grainy VHS tapes I love, more lore and lies than anything resembling fact.
Enter Al Getz.
A former manager on the independent scene, Getz has long had an obsession with wrestling’s glorious past. But, rather than accept the tale tales that old-timers have told so often they actual believe them, he decided to actually research and document what actually happened in wrestling’s glory years to the best of his ability.
The result is “Charting the Territories” a revolutionary book (on-sale at Amazon) that builds on the work of classic wrestling historians like James Melby and the Clawmaster by attempting to quantify what he found in the newspaper stacks rather than merely list results of old matches.
The territory in the spotlight here, later called “Mid-South” or “Tri-State Wrestling,” was generally referred to at the time as the McGuirk territory or simply Oklahoma. It was a sprawling collection of 15 weekly cities in five states, ranging from Oklahoma City all the way down to New Orleans a whopping 700 miles away.
Run by LeRoy McGuirk, a former NCAA and professional champion, it was a territory that valued rugged tough guys. The promotion was built around two babyface champions, both with a rotating rogue’s gallery looking to steal their gold by hook or crook.
The heavyweight kingpin was Bill Watts, an ex-football player at the University of Oklahoma then at the height of his Hall-of-Fame career.The light heavyweight division was headed by Danny Hodge, the greatest amateur wrestler America ever birthed, gifted with a grip of iron and a head almost as hard. The book follows these two men and the many wrestlers in their orbit through three complete calendar years, giving readers a sense for just how hectic life was as a full-time wrestler in the era before national expansion.
The end product is a glorious collection of Bill James’ style statistics and the most comprehensive look we’ve ever had at how a wrestling territory actually functioned in the 1970s. This isn’t a narrative or just a collection of results. It’s results in context, something I’ve never seen before in the wrestling space.
Most interesting of these new stats, to me at least, is Getz’s SPOT (Statistical Position Over Time) rating. Traditionally we’ve ranked wrestlers based mostly on subjective opinions and beliefs, a logical approach to art, but one Getz believed failed to paint an accurate picture of the business as it existed at the time.
“I was looking to arrange wrestling in something akin to a depth chart,” Getz writes in his introduction, “based on how the promoters and/or bookers wanted fans to perceive the wrestlers.”
To meet this goal, Getz created the SPOT rating, using the promoter’s own card structures to speak loudly about how the wrestlers were seen in the office and subsequently presented to the fans. Presented graphically as a “speedometer”, the rating definitively proves whether a wrestler was main eventer, opening act, or something in between.
I fully concede that this book is not for everyone. This is a book for weirdos and obsessives, aka MY PEOPLE. If you are the kind of person who loves looking through old newspaper clippings and fantasizing about what it would have been like to sit in the crowd and soak it all in, this book is for you. If you want to write responsibly about wrestling history, this book is for you. If you want to spend a few minutes reminiscing about the glory days, friend, this book is for you.
I sat down with Getz last week, literally minutes after devouring the book, to talk to Getz about his incredible work, how he achieved it and what he might have in store for the future:
Jonathan Snowden: So, first and foremost, congratulations on this book. It's something truly unique in the wrestling space. What gave you the idea to so thoroughly research a single territory in this kind of rigorous detail?
Al Getz: I’ve always been fascinated with “filling in the blanks” with regard to house show information. We know as a general rule of thumb that most wrestlers worked 6-7 nights a week, yet only a fraction of those shows have been documented. As a long-time baseball fan, this struck me as odd. If you wanted to know what happened when the Yankees played the Red Sox on a specific date a few decades ago, you can pretty easily look that up. But for a number of territories, we are missing so many records. On top of that, some territories have been more thoroughly researched than others, and LeRoy McGuirk’s territory seemed to have been one that was underrepresented (at least before the Mid-South years from 1979 forward).
Jonathan Snowden: How did you come up with the idea for the SPOT rating? Does that have an analogue somewhere in the Bill James tradition? Is a really interesting shorthand to see where a wrestler fit in the grand scheme of things.
Al Getz: The concept of wrestling “stats” is tricky due to the nature of this wacky business. I was definitely influenced by Bill James, though not necessarily looking to develop advanced metrics. Just a simple answer to the question “what was this wrestler’s role” at a given period of time in a given territory.
Over time I developed what I call the SPOT Rating, which stands for Statistical Position Over Time. It uses the order of the matches on a given wrestling card to put a numeric value on a wrestler’s position, or their “spot”. The higher the number, the higher up the cards they were placed. And this was during an era where that mattered, where the wrestlers higher up on the card were the ones who “drew the crowd”. If someone demonstrated the ability to draw fans when they are put in meaningful matches, the promotion will continue to put them in meaningful matches
Jonathan Snowden: You kind of touched on this in a previous answer, but I'm intrigued by the choice of the McGuirk territory in those years. Commercially, you'd think a bigger territory like New York or Mid-Atlantic might be a gaudier launching pad. What was it about this time and place that attracted you?
Al Getz: When I first developed the SPOT Rating, I spent a bit of time beta-testing it by applying it to several different territories at various time periods. When looking at McGuirk’s territory, a few things stuck out to me.
First, there seemed to be a much smaller percentage of shows “documented” on sites like cagematch and wrestlingdata than there were for most other territories.
Second, a lot of names popped up that I wasn’t expecting to see. Whether it was Dusty Rhodes’ big run in 1971, or a young(ish) Jim Valiant popping up a year later, or the feud between the Assassins and the Kentuckians that happened in a few different territories in the 1960s making its way to this territories, there are lots of fun surprises if you look closely. Third, it’s a fascinating territory to me because there are times when it’s got a stacked roster as far as “name value” to casual fans. And then a year or so later it’s filled with names that are less known.
Jonathan Snowden: What is your hope for this series? Is the goal to do something like this for every major territory? I think, if that's possible, we'd have a much better understanding of the business pre-national expansion and possibly identify some important players history has forgotten.
Al Getz: In a perfect world, I’d love to cover every territory (and not just in the US and Canada) for a large period of time, say 20 years or so. But that is likely a pipe dream. A large chuck of my time is spent finding the as-of-yet-unearthed house show records to have as complete a data set as possible. I do plan on covering the McGuirk territory dating back to the late 50s (McGuirk first became sole owner of the territory in early 1958) up through the Mid-South years. Aside from that, I think it’s feasible to do almanacs for several territories in a specific region of the country for a several year period.
Jonathan Snowden: What is the process you use to compile the data? Is this something you could train others to do? It would be great to see the "Al Getz" method spread throughout the small community of people who document wrestling history.
Al Getz: The process is not rocket science. I like to think it’s teachable. There are occasions where it’s slightly more art than science, as there are sometimes unique characteristics to the structure of a wrestling card that requires a manual approach. But if there are people out there with lots of free time who are well-versed in Microsoft Excel, their assistance may be appreciated.
The harder part is then what I do with all the individual data points. Because we are dealing with incomplete data, and the data is often of different “levels of completeness” at different times, I’ve developed some formulas to basically scale the data and present numbers on a week-by-week basis. Territories operated on a weekly schedule, with the television program regularly introducing new characters and starting new feuds, so the week-to-week changes in a wrester’s SPOT Rating has value. I’ve spent some time putting together an instruction manual with the entire process and specific instructions and formulas that can be copied and pasted, and it’s very possible there are a few people out there that could use the manual to aggregate the data.
Jonathan Snowden: I'm struggling to figure out how to put this in a kind way—this is not a book for normal people. Who do you see as the audience and how do you hope they use this material?
Al Getz: That is absolutely a true statement, and one I have understood from the beginning. I have spent a lot of time on this project, and at first I saw it as a ‘neat’ thing to do that may add a little context to the territorial era and be of interest to folks like me who lie in the intersection in the Venn diagram of “old-school wrestling fans” and “stat nerds”.
But over time when you see how many wrestlers pop up in different territories, at different stages of their career and in different roles, you realize that so much of wrestling’s history has gone untold. We know almost everything there is to know about Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz, and Hulk Hogan. But what about Bobby Jaggers, Fred Curry, and Silento Rodriguez? In baseball, the same statistics used to evaluate Babe Ruth, Johnny Bench, and Derek Jeter can be applied to Marcus Giles, Coco Crisp, and Mario Mendoza. The same can’t be said for wrestling. Until (maybe?) now.
I think over time it can result in some interesting talking points insofar as evaluating wrestlers and territories. Can it be used to compare Hall of Famers with HoF candidates in a way that isn’t currently done? Perhaps. Can it be used to compare territories and see which one had the deepest roster at a given point in time and also to “rank” all of them? Possibly. Are these things of interest to a mass audience? Almost certainly not. But I know there are people like me who would be interested in having this.
The overwhelming majority of wrestling books fall into two main categories:
1) Biographies/autobiographies of wrestlers and in some cases of territories.
2) “Results books” which tell you who beat who and not much else.
Charting the Territories is an attempt to take the info you normally find in those results books and put it into context and create stats and rankings to tell a narrative and tell a story independent of the wrestlers themselves, who are often prone to, shall we say, self-embellishment.
Jonathan Snowden: It strikes me, looking at your book, how different this all is from contemporary wrestling. Do you think fans familiar only with Attitude Era forward wrestling will even recognize it as the same sport?
Al Getz: When comparing eras in wrestling, most people point to the match quality as the major difference. But there are tons of other differences. The concept of guys coming in for a few months and then leaving, many times never to come back, is incredibly jarring to a fan who has seen Kofi Kingston and Dolph Ziggler in the same place for 15 years now. The regional territories were usually based around home-grown babyface superstars fending off challenges from a rotating rogues’ gallery of heels; every week there’s something new. And due to changes in how we consume media and how wrestling companies make most of their money, the ways of old are no longer applicable. It's not apples and oranges; it's more like apples and rutabagas, or maybe even Studebakers.
Jonathan Snowden: Anything else you would like people to know?
Al Getz: I think it’s really hard to describe what’s actually “in” the book without seeing it. It’s in many ways a case study of a wrestling territory, using statistics to tell stories that have gone untold for years. There’s also a bit of “disproving wrestling myths”. Did every wrestler work seven days a week and twice on Sundays? Did wrestlers who were “feuding” face each other every single night for weeks on end? These questions are answered using actual data. As mentioned previously, there’s some Bill James influence at play, but I was also influenced by the self-proclaimed “rogue economist” Steven Levitt and his Freakonomics books.
Charting the Territories is an acquired taste for sure, but if anything in this interview has piqued your interest, it’s worth a taste.
Thanks to Peacock never uploading any classic wrestling to what used to be the WWE Network, those absolute motherfuckers
Ole’s turn on the American Dream is the first wrestling angle I remember well, in part because it kicked off a big school yard argument about whether wrestling was real when it was inside a cage.
The best addition to this genre in years has been Conrad Thompson’s Ad Free Shows empire, a collection of wonderful podcasts devoted to wrestling nostalgia.
There were nine additional cities the promotion ran regularly. Oklahoma generally ran between two and four events every night. It was a really big and impressive territory, but a difficult one to work due to the long drives and hard style.
Watts is probably best known today for his time running WCW, which included a weird decision to prohibit top rope moves and a Pro Wrestling Torch interview that was so racially divisive that the great Henry Aaron himself insisted Ted Turner take action.